Still, this does not relieve modern people of the task of interpreting and understanding the tradition within a modern context. As much as I disagree with Warner’s claim that “the Virgin's legend will endure in its splendour and lyricism, but it will be emptied of moral significance, and thus lose its present real powers to heal and to harm,” (339) I sympathize with the difficulties she experienced growing up as a Catholic girl/woman in the second half of the twentieth century. While the demand of the Virgin for “purity” may not actually have been interpreted as solely referring to “sexual chastity” for the “nearly two thousand years” that Warner claims (xxi), it seems undeniable that it has taken on such an interpretation in a strong way in recent years, and this is a development that will only be reversed if scholars and Catholics and people increase the extent to which alternative interpretations are voiced. We can see from current events such as the recent crackdown on the Leadership Council of Women Religious that it is not always easy to be a woman in the Catholic Church today, and while gender should never be our sole category of analysis with regards to historical and social issues, it is a relevant one in today’s society unfortunately often. While the events of the last half century have not eradicated Marian devotion nor religion in general, they have certainly shifted the cultural landscape greatly. We are still feeling the effects of these shifts now and will probably continue to do so going forward. In order to gain the most benefit from religious traditions such as the tradition surrounding Mary, we must put in the work of interpreting them in a way that is simultaneously faithful to the tradition and relevant to the modern context. This process does not entail the “salvaging” of resources from the past that Daly (83) or some other feminists would have it be, but rather just one more iteration or reiteration of Mary and her images and meanings that have been repeatedly refigured and reimagined over the course of the past 20 centuries. Any appropriate modern reimagining will, to my mind, include a combination of accurate understanding and interpretation of the historical tradition with an understanding of the needs and concerns of modern people in our contemporary context. Perhaps with even an element of divine revelation thrown in there.
This need for constructive reimagining is why I (like many people, I have to assume) find myself frustrated with Mary Daly. I think I have very little patience for iconoclasts in general, because at some point you have to stop tearing things down and actually put forth a constructive suggestion. As far as I can tell, Daly never really puts forth an alternative to the “patriarchal past” (83) that she wants to completely reject, neither in this chapter nor anything else I have read by her. More accurately, the only alternative she puts forth is a vision of some sort of primal power of the “Great Mother” who existed before all patriarchal religion. I would be more sympathetic with the ideas Daly proposes within this framework if she admitted that the idea of a unified female religious symbol that existed before Christianity was in the realm of feminist mythology rather than history. (not to be dismissive of mythology!) I suppose that one is meant to take Daly, as a theologian (of sorts), as speaking religious truth rather than historical, but it seems to me that this line is particularly easy to blur when creating new myths in a “postmodern” age where mythology is popularly looked on as foolishness. There are isolated passages of Daly’s writing that I really appreciate. The paragraph on page 86, for example, that begins “when the idea itself of Mary’s being conceived without ‘original sin’ is ‘selectively perceived,’ it can convey an entirely different meaning” would be insightful if it were framed differently—if, for example, she had written “Imagine if Mary’s being conceived without ‘original sin’ was a negation of the myth of feminine evil.” Such an invitation to a new conception of the figure of Mary would be welcome to me. The problem is Daly’s statement that we “can” “selectively perceive” aspects of the Marian tradition and come up with anything like an appropriate interpretation. The ideas she puts forth in this paragraph are interesting to think about whether or not one believes they are theologically sound. Her mistake comes in framing hers as the only acceptable interpretation and rejecting all existing aspects of the tradition.
On the flip side, the same concern with a combination of respect for the tradition and constructive new suggestions for the modern era is why I particularly loved Sarah Jane Boss’s interpretation of Mary as creation. She opens the chapter with biblical interpretation, grounding her understanding firmly in the tradition. She goes on to construct an interpretation that remains theologically grounded while speaking to a modern audience. She views her interpretation as correcting for a modern Western culture that is “at war with nature” (8), and she acknowledges the potential biases of her modern Western readers (9). In this way, through her interpretation she allows those aspects of the tradition that seem most pertinent to today’s context to speak to modern readers.
To my mind, this type of interpretation that remains grounded in the tradition but simultaneously aware of its modern context is the ideal form for a feminist theology. One does not have to accept Daly or Warner’s interpretation to recognize a potential need for feminist theological interpretation—by which I mean theological interpretation that takes into account the specific needs of contemporary women. One good outcome that I would credit Mary Daly in particular with, despite my vehement disagreement with most of her framework, is that her work spurred many other Catholic feminists to create new interpretations that spoke to the needs of contemporary Catholic women (ultimately similar needs to those Warner and Daly recognized) without rejecting or vastly misreading the preexisting traditions.-ELM